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Review: Rabe's 'An Early History of Fire' simmers

Review: Rabe's 'An Early History of Fire' simmers

David Rabe's new play, "An Early History of Fire", doesn't generate quite as much heat as the title implies, but it's an entertaining, accurate portrayal of a time when America was on the cusp of social upheaval.
Rabe, author of many fine plays, including "Streamers" and "Hurly Burly" has set this drama, about a young man gradually pulling away from his father and childhood friends, in small-town, Midwestern America in the autumn of 1962. The well-acted, sometimes-combustible production by The New Group opened Monday night off-Broadway at Theatre Row.
Restless college-dropout Danny (a fine performance by Theo Stockman) is impatient for the future, sensing he's growing away from his longtime friends, but not yet sure what he'll do next. He's just met and fallen in love with a rich, pretty, college coed named Karen (Claire van der Boom) who, along with the books she's reading, is putting new ideas in his head. Meanwhile, he's stuck living at home again with his immigrant German Jewish father, Emil (Gordon Clapp, nicely belligerent but hampered by the German-accented English).
Director Jo Bonney keeps the production suspenseful, as Rabe lays out an increasingly tense couple of days in Danny's life. Bonney beautifully stages a long, sweetly awkward date interrupted by a huge fire, and then an emotional roller-coaster of a party. The play doesn't stint on the darker side of small-town life; although there are many humorous moments, there's also a lot of drinking, emotional outbursts, and references to a possible suicide and serious mental illness.
Rabe has always had an ear for the way men talk together, and conversations among these men are full of casual prejudice and sexism, as well as confusion, longing and despair. There's barely-simmering resentment among the working-class set toward their wealthy neighbors _ and toward one another. Moments of humor lighten the tension, like Danny's incredulity when Karen tells him there's a pill that prevents her from getting pregnant.
Danny and his still-boyish friends are bound by a macho camaraderie created by growing up together, fighting and hanging out, trying to get girls, and now working at factory jobs. More restrained and thoughtful than his friends, Danny can seem inarticulate and shallow, but Stockman expressively conveys a deeper intelligence.
Van der Boom gets some of Rabe's most lyrical speeches in this play, as Karen, aided by marijuana and alcohol, theatrically presents half-formed ideas gleaned from college dorm-mate obsessions with recently published literature like J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" and Jack Kerouac's "On The Road."
During a party that has peaks and valleys of emotion, Karen warns overly-dramatically, "The Fifties are a nightmare from which we have to, we have to WAKE UP." Some of her Beat-infused musings seem wonderfully quaint now, and van der Boom perfectly captures the fervor of a naive college girl in love with life, trying on sophistication like another pretty dress.
Jonny Orsini wears an air of good-natured goofiness as Danny's friend Terry, while Dennis Staroselsky ably portrays his more volatile pal, Jake. Erin Darke is sweetly vague as Terry's ex-girlfriend, Shirley, who has improbably turned to prostitution, and Devin Ratray is a strong presence as Emil's less-than-bright but devoted friend, Benji. Neil Patel has created a perfectly detailed, shabby, lower-middle-class living room and kitchen, complete with a sagging convertible sofa-bed.
Rabe was 22 years old in 1962, so this play could have autobiographical origins, and even if the outcome seems predictable, Rabe creates memorable characters, moments of volatility and warmth, and phrases that stick in your mind.
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Online:
http://www.thenewgroup.org


Updated : 2021-06-14 23:12 GMT+08:00